For the second year running, Manchester United are through to the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup following a thrilling victory over a powerful Charlton side in front of over 4,000 spectators shoehorned into the lower deck of the North Stand at Old Trafford.
The game was a tremendous advert for Academy football and both sides will feel that they did enough to win it. Charlton, a noticeably bigger and more physical team than United, looked dangerous throughout and dominated the game for lengthy periods. They also created enough opportunities to have won the tie themselves but found United’s defence in obdurate mood.
United made 2 changes from the team that won so convincingly against Swansea in the fifth round, welcoming back skipper Luke McCulloch at centre-back and bringing in Liam Grimshaw at right back. The most notable name on the Charlton teamsheet was undoubtedly Diego Poyet, son of current Brighton manager, Gus Poyet, who joined United’s Luke Hendrie and Jack Barmby in the ‘Sons of Famous Dads’ department.
The game began at a frantic pace and it was immediately clear why Charlton had progressed so far in this year’s tournament. They were forceful and direct and in Tobi Sho-Silva had a front man to worry any defence. On the other hand, Norwegian Mats Daehli was also proving a real handful, regularly weaving his way through Charlton’s massed defence as both teams gave as good as they got.
Charlton came closest to scoring early on when midfielder Callum Harriot saw his powerful drive touched on to and over the bar by United keeper Jon Sutherland. That chance came after 11 minutes and was the last really clear-cut opening we saw until a manic period leading up to the break.
First United nearly went ahead when Jack Rudge’s instinctive shot from six yards out was beaten away by Dillon Phillips in the Charlton goal. The ball then broke to Sho-Silva, who ran virtually the length of the pitch before driving in a powerful shot at the near post that Sutherland kept out with his knees.
United got their noses in front after 42 minutes with a strike from a familiar source. Jack Barmby has scored in every round of this year’s competition and he maintained that record with a powerful skidding shot from the left-hand edge of the Charlton area which skipped over the diving Phillips and into the far corner. However, Charlton were soon back in it thanks to another piledriver from Harriot. This time, Sutherland could only parry the ball into the air and Sho-Silva arrived first to loop a header over the United keeper and into the net. Harriot then spurned a gilt-edged chance to put Charlton ahead, blazing a shot over the crossbar with the goal at his mercy.
Into the second half and the pace remained unrelenting, but neither side could gain a clear advantage. 16-year old James Wilson – so impressive as a sub at Swansea – replaced Hendrie some ten minutes in and United reshuffled their pack with Daehli dropping into midfield, allowing Wilson to support Sam Byrne further forward. Both sides created chances with Phillips beating away a Barmby shot and Nick Iannou slicing a Jordan Cousins cross just over his own bar.
Further goals looked likely and in the end it was United who got their noses in front again after 77 minutes. This time, full-back Liam Grimshaw went on an overlapping run and curled in an almost Beckham-esque cross which the onrushing Gylliano van Velzen stooped to head home despite the close attentions of a Charlton defender. Unbelievably, within 85 seconds, the Londoners were level again. A United move broke down in midfield and Oliver Muldoon fed Sho-Silva, who drilled a low shot unerringly past the sprawling Sutherland and into the bottom corner of the United net.
For United’s U-18 and for coach Paul McGuinness, this was all becoming a bit like ‘Groundhog Day’ – at the weekend, the U-18’s had taken the lead three times against Wolves. only to be quickly pegged back each time. The same pattern appeared to be occurring here as well.
With cramp taking its toll – particularly on the Charlton team – there were numerous substitutions in the final stages of the game. One of the Charlton subs, midfielder Harry Gerard, didn’t have long to enjoy his trip to Old Trafford as he was on the receiving end of a robust challenge from Tyler Blackett after 85 minutes and received fully 5 minutes of treatment on the pitch before being stretchered off. Blackett was booked, though the tackle was over-enthusiatic rather than malicious. This reduced Charlton to 10 men, but despite this, they had two great opportunities to score at the death, both involving another sub and their leading scorer, Adebayo Azeez. First Nick Iannou contrived a brilliant goal-line clearance to keep out Azeez’s close-range shot, then the sub burst free of United’s defence only to see Sutherland hurl himself to his left to deflect his goalbound shot wide of the post.
Given how close they had come, it must have been a bitter disappointment for Charlton to concede what proved to be the winning goal in the 7th of 10 minutes of time added on for Gerard’s injury, sundry outbreaks of cramp and a raft of substitutions.
This time, van Velzen, quiet for much of the game, got away down the Charlton left and fired in a low cross which the stretching James Wilson managed to divert into the net from about 10 yards out. Glee among the United players was matched by misery among the Charlton youngsters. They had stood toe to toe with United for 100 minutes of end-to-end action and had only just come up short. There were tears from some of the Charlton lads at the final whistle and, not surprisingly, both sets of players looked utterly spent. Paul McGuinness has got it all on to get the United lads down off the ceiling in time for next Saturday morning’s trip to Barnsley.
James Wilson – United’s matchwinner and a real prospect. But has he done his homework?
In an eerie retread of last year’s competition, United must now face up to a two-legged semi-final against Chelsea. Last year they lost the first leg at Stamford Bridge but won comfortably at Old Trafford and though this year’s squad aren’t quite as robust or as physically imposing as their predecessors, you wouldn’t put anything past them now.